The government’s approach to alcohol has always been incoherent; we can buy alcohol in petrol stations, for example, but it is against the law to drink drive. Its recent designation of off-licences as essential services during the coronavirus pandemic is an extension of this confusion.
There is only one group that absolutely requires alcohol: alcoholics. For those with alcohol dependencies, any abrupt disruption to their intake could be deadly; for the rest of us, alcohol is a luxury. Why, then, has the government made it essential?
Its motives are relatively transparent. It would be out of character for them to prioritise alcoholics, as the services they need to safely detoxify have had their budgets cuts year on year for a decade.
Rather, the move to designate off-licenses as essential retailers is more likely the result of alcohol industry lobbying, which government for some reason finds very hard to resist. The success of their lobbying was already evident in the fact that alcohol is cheaper relative to income than it has ever been, as the industry has kept excise duty low. Evidence is already emerging of the rise in alcohol consumption during this crisis with a surge in sales of over 50%.
Health economists suggest that price and availability determine the use of drugs (including alcohol) in a population.The United Kingdom has been excelled at both of these metrics, managing to keep the price of alcohol low while extending access.
Although many of us may be grateful that we can still get hold of alcohol, we shouldn’t be given the impression that alcohol is the way to get through lockdown; indeed the World Health Organisation has stated that the drug should not be used as a coping mechanism during the coronavirus crisis – particularly as alcohol compromises our immunity, something we need to be at its peak at this time.
It can be tempting – when feeling isolated, fed-up or bored – to use alcohol to try and change the way we feel. While that can work in the short term, there are physical and psychological risks to continuing to do this. Many people underestimate the impact that even moderate drinking has on their health, including increasing the risk of a range of cancers. Equally, alcohol and depression are inseparable bedfellows for many people. It can often be difficult to determine which came first: a low mood self-medicated for with alcohol, or sustained drinking, which can gradually cause a deterioration in mood.
Rather than risk compromising our health, this is a great opportunity to extend Dry January to “Dry Covid”. It’s only in the absence of a substance that you find out what your relationship with it is, and can hope to recalibrate it. For some, this process could be revealing; for others, life-changing. Of all drugs, alcohol is the one from which we feel and see the most rapid transformation – from improved sleep to better appearance to improved mood – when we eliminate it.
Successive governments have fed us mixed messages about alcohol for decades. Now is as good a time to regain some clarity, and tackle our national dependence on this drug. Changing our collective relationship with alcohol would yield more for the nation’s health than almost any other policy intervention, but that would require political leadership that’s free (or at least freer) from industry influence. Unfortunately, there’s no sign that’s about to change
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